Sunday, 6 September 2015

I've Just Seen: Tokyo Story (1953)

Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari) (1953)
Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Tokyo Story is at the top of basically all lists of the greatest films of all time, often alongside Citizen Kane, The Godfather(s), 2001: A Space Odyssey and few others. Ozu's film is arguably the quietest of them all, without dynamic editing, action packed stories, amazing special effects or extreme characters. Instead, it follows an elderly couple who go to Tokyo to visit their adult children who live in this modern city. Two of the families treat them as a bit of a nuisance, while the widow of their son cares for them and even takes them into her modest home.

The greatness of Ozu's film lies in the small moments shared between people, whether it is the rather heartfelt conversation the elderly mother and daughter-in-law share one night, or the reflections of the couple as they try to relax at a holiday resort. The relationships between all the characters are beautifully drawn, revealing different aspects of each as they all interact. There are no substantial, dramatic changes; in fact, even a sad event fails to truly alter some people's hard-heartedness.

While these themes and ideas are "universal," the film reflects on the cultural shifts that were taking place in Japan in the 1950s. Most of the young people wear Western style clothes, while Shukichi and Tomi wear kimonos throughout. Tokyo is also a bustling city, and Shukichi and Tomi's children are too busy to spend time with their parents. This posterity and work is seen by the parents as understandable and a sign of their children's success, but these thoughts are tinged with melancholia.

The cinematography is some of the best you will see in cinema. Everything is filmed from around belly button height, changing the way we experience the space of people's houses. Shukichi and Tomi spend much of the film sitting on the floor, while their children are often up and moving around. The camera barely moves, and Ozu and his cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta frame people beautifully, through door frames or around windows.

As you can see I loved this film. It is moving in its depiction of family life, portraying a divide that occurs in many families the world over. If you balk at black-and-white cinematography, or subtitles, then you have only yourself to blame for missing out on such wonderful explorations into the human condition.

Tangentially, I have recently watched three films from three different Japanese directors from the 1950s: Mizoguchi's Sansho the Baliff, Ozu's Tokyo Story and Kurosawa's Ikiru. I have loved them all, and would definitely recommend an excursion into post-WWII Japanese cinema. 


  1. I can only second that. There are so many excellent Japanese movies from the post war period. Ozu's film is the quietest of them, but still manages to be intense. In many ways this movie reminded me of Make Way for Tomorrow.

    1. I haven't yet seen Make Way for Tomorrow, but from what I know about it, you're right.

  2. Ozu is a wonder. I've seen four or five of his movies. (My favorite is Good Morning.)

    You watch an Ozu movie. Two and a half hours pass. Nothing happens. But you are mesmerized.

    1. I haven't seen any others of Ozu, but I am looking forward to delving into his filmography.

      Mesmerising is the word!